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Coronavirus Pandemic

People with intellectual disabilities help improve the vaccination process for others

Doctor in gloves holding syringe and making injection to woman

Natasha Black, who has an intellectual disability (ID), is helping Philadelphia vaccine sites be more accommodating for others with similar disabilities.

Research has proven that people with ID are at much higher risk of contracting COVID-19 than the general population.  They are also more likely to die from the virus.  According to Wendy Ross, a physician and director of Jefferson Health’s Center for Autism and Neurodiversity, people with ID who were hospitalized with the virus were six times more likely to die.

There are several factors as to why people with ID are more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, said Ross.  Some have sensory difficulties that make it harder to wear masks for long periods of time.  Others who live at home may have therapists and other support staff coming into the home, which may expose them to the virus. Many are more likely to use public transportation, another route of exposure.

The majority of people with ID require accommodations to lessen any anxiety or sensitivities they may experience.  Ross and other Jefferson physicians met with self-advocates like Black, whose group is run by Carousel Connections, a Philadelphia training and support program for people with disabilities. In focus groups, Black and others spoke about how to make the vaccination experience easier.

“Headphones — that’s one of my calming tools,” Black said. Others requested sunglasses to help deal with light sensitivity, fidget devices to distract them, or shot blocker discs — devices sometimes used to lessen the pain of injections. Ross and her colleagues also recommended that vaccine providers spend a bit more time with people with ID.

“The advice [focus group members] gave was advice everyone could benefit from,” Ross said. “What you see, underlying, is, ‘Just be nice to me, and be positive and encouraging. Distract me — ask if I have a favorite song. Tell me I’m doing a good job.’ Who doesn’t benefit from all these things?”

Ross said Jefferson physicians are working to implement all of the the accommodations recommended by the focus groups. They are also advising larger vaccination sites that are geared toward the general public, so that they can better accommodate people with intellectual disabilities.

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